How Facebook has changed our idea of public space

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The Cambridge Analytica scandal suggests our social contract with social media is up for renewal. Lauren Rosewarne unpacks how we got into this predicament, and how we can get out of it.

Since the 1980s, every few years, the idea of an Australia Card gets bandied about – a centralised source of information on health, welfare payments and tax. Among the many reasons such a card remains perpetually unpopular is privacy.

Australians harbour high-level paranoia about the government. About what might be done – in an absolute worst-case scenario - by a central agency holding too much data on us.

At the same time, most Australians have Facebook accounts and we’re using it regularly and with greater fervor than much of the world.

Until very recently, we’ve seemingly been quite cool with that hoodied billionaire stockpiling an incalculable amount of information on us. The Cambridge Analytica brouhaha however, has forced to us to rethink this privacy paradox.

Each day, Facebook collects more data on us than the KGB/SS/CIA/MI6/Mossad would have ever dared attempt.

The true genius underpinning the business model is that without threat, without rancor, we gladly give Facebook access to our most secret preferences and predilections - when we’re having fun and when we’re laughing at a puppy video, our guard is down. Each day, Facebook collects more data on us than the KGB/SS/CIA/MI6/Mossad would have ever dared attempt. From tracking our daily journeys and stockpiling our search histories to uncovering “Which one of Jesus’ Disciples Are You?”, Facebook has convinced us that giving up personal information is now a leisure activity. 

And while we’re joyfully sharing happy snaps from our most recent vacay, the furthest thing from our mind is that the Tax Office might be having a squiz at our posts. Equally, few of us are ever pondering the consequences of not logging out of the platform prior to perusing the evening’s erotic entertainment.

The earliest writings on the internet described it with terms like “wild west” and “information superhighway”. The 90s picture was one was of both lawlessness and unbridled freedom. In practice, the majority of us have chosen instead to embrace life within a walled garden. We have – by choice, by convenience – found ourselves doing most of our web activity within the parameters of a space that feels open and public and yet has a glaring – and often-clashing - remit to deliver returns to its shareholders.

Facebook has become so key in revolutionising our concept of public space that few of us have noticed that much of our time online is now spent in the backyard of a corporation.

And it’s all happy-happy-joy-joy until something like the Cambridge Analytica story breaks and we’re suddenly shocked and outraged. Abruptly we realise that while we might not be paying Facebook a service fee, there’s undoubtedly a cost to being able to keep in touch with all those people we hated in Facebook and laughing at all those Trump memes.

Given advertisers can still track where you go online even after you’ve deleted your Facebook account, the option to customise our privacy levels on Facebook seems like a false gesture of security.

This isn’t my attempt to victim-blame. Using anyone’s data without permission is wretched and – I hope it turns out – completely illegal. But it’s also unsurprising. When we’ve given all that data to anyone, let alone a private corporation, is it any surprise that it’s been used for corporate purposes?

#DeleteFacebook is one option. Another is getting our heads around the reality that Facebook isn’t a town square, despite all the bunting. It’s a big business, that business is big data, and keeping that in perspective while we’re clicking and liking and joining and laughing uproariously is crucial.

Facebook would rather the onus be on us to master our security settings. But given advertisers can still track where you go online even after you’ve deleted your Facebook account, the option to customise our privacy levels on Facebook seems like a false gesture of security.

A mass exodus from Facebook is not beyond the realm of possibility. Facebook needs to tighten its practices, it needs to – at a bare minimum – have people with more legal nous managing their corporate agreements. And Zuckerberg needs to acknowledge that operating completely without government oversight is perhaps no longer feasible.

Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the author of nine books on gender, sexuality, politics and pop culture. She co-hosts Radio National’s “Stop Everything!” pop culture show and can be found at: www.laurenrosewarne.com